Moderne folk sans borders

Pub date June 12, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

Some years after she took the City of Lights by storm, the great African American chanteuse Josephine Baker famously sang, "J’ai deux amours / Mon pays et Paris": "I have two loves / My country and Paris." For the neofolkish, introspective French singer-songwriter Keren Ann, the journey has been the opposite of Baker’s.

After establishing herself with a pair of fine, well-received folk-pop albums in her native France, Keren Ann went bicontinental, establishing a base in New York City, and started recording songs in English. I’m Not Going Anywhere (2003) was her critically acclaimed first English-language effort, for Blue Note’s Metro Blue imprint. That was followed by the superb 2005 English-French hybrid Nolita (named after her New York neighborhood north of Little Italy) and now her latest, a self-titled, all-English CD. Not content with having just deux amours, however, she has truly become a singer without borders. Though mostly recorded at her home studios and in commercial facilities in New York and Paris, the new album includes songs that were cut in Reykjavik and tapped members of the Icelandic Culture House choir; other tracks were laid down in Avignon in Provence, Los Angeles, and Tel Aviv.

In fact, when Keren Ann calls me for an interview in mid-May, she is ensconced in a Tel Aviv recording studio, working on — get this — a Christmas song for a Starbucks compilation. Any perceived irony aside, this fits into her plan of recording wherever and whenever the inspiration strikes her, as was the case throughout the making of Keren Ann.

"I mostly adapted the recording to other things I was doing," she says cheerfully in a lightly accented English that has become even more Americanized in the two years since I last interviewed her. "I didn’t want to schedule recording periods for the album. I’ve done that in the past, and I’m sure I’ll do it in the future, but it was more interesting to be able record wherever I was, whether I was working with a choir on another project or touring or being somewhere on vacation. I always carry tapes and hard drives with me, so I could record and add things.

"On this album, sometimes I wanted to re-create different studio environments I found myself in — like high ceilings in one, wood in another — and twist it around so it sounds homogenic." (I think she means homogenous. Although Keren Ann speaks English well, she does come up with the occasional charming syntactical curiosity — but rarely in her songwriting.)

Raised mostly in Paris by a Russian Israeli father and a Javanese Dutch mother, Keren Ann Zeidel knew from an early age that she wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Influenced by French singers she heard on the radio and on albums, she also gravitated toward confessional writers from across the Atlantic such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. While still a teenager, she started making tapes of her own songs on a four-track recorder. Indeed, she has always had a studio of some sort wherever she lives, and she knows enough about engineering to make elaborate demos at home or add overdubs to tracks recorded in conventional studios. Her two French albums were collaborations with the noted producer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Biolay, and some of his innovative production ideas have clearly rubbed off on her.

Her albums are quietly powerful. Though her fragile voice rarely rises above a breathy whisper, her songs can still be quite intense, thanks to her often unusual arrangement ideas: effected guitars that bring to mind New York’s Bill Frisell and others, striking keyboard patches, atmospheric trumpets, elegant violin and cello, and stacks of ethereal backing vocals.

"I naturally have a melancholic side," she says, "and I like to mix that feeling with luminous melodies so there is a balance. It’s the same with the productions: I might want to have a quiet vocal with something more aggressive underneath it to balance it."

Asked about current influences in her music, she offers, "Not really much in the area of pop music. The person whose music has touched me the most, recently, is Phillip Glass. I love the way he gets so much emotion out of repetition and the way he builds his pieces."

She says she feels equally comfortable writing in English and French — "whichever one works best for the emotions I’m feeling at the time" — though she admits her choice is also affected by geography. "Any language is expressive," she adds. "Had I started writing in English, maybe for a challenge I would have needed to go to France at some point and write in French, because I like challenges and I like working with languages — I think they open up different aspects of your way of thinking and your character. I have that need to absorb and be absorbed by different surroundings and then take them into my work." (Blair Jackson)


With Jason Hart

Sat/16, 9 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750